The Saints Come Marching into Her Living Room

Behind the scenes at Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions, an uptown institution. ♦

Over the years, Count Basie, Paul Robeson and other prominent Harlem musicians and artists have lived behind the embellished iron gates of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, just beyond Sugar Hill. In apartment 3F, jazz still lingers in the air every Sunday afternoon.

Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment jazz sessions have become an institution. For 15 years, with the help of her son Rudel Drears, Eliot has been throwing open her parlor to everyone from travelers toting cameras and guidebooks to neighborhood regulars who help pass around punch and cookies during intermission. “This is the real thing,” says German tourist Dom Schick, a recent visitor. “This is the Harlem jazz scene you hear about.”

In Eliot’s apartment, photos of Martin Luther King and John Coltrane share wall space with Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. Folding chairs are crammed into rows in the small living room, kitchen and hallway. Eliot welcomes everybody with the same enthusiastic smile. She’s “somewhere over 50” and frail but wiry, elegant in her flowing Sunday best with a halo of gray hair. Her voice is measured and she speaks with effort, but projects well – a holdover, perhaps, from her days on the stage and in the choir. Eliot opens each session at the piano, softly ushering in the evening with a hymn or spiritual.

Drears, whose father is percussionist Al Drears (who has played with Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and others), sings and alternates with Eliot on the ivories. An energetic musician in a crisp white shirt and black fedora, with blocks of cubic zirconia twinkling in his earlobes, he is prone to fits of post-performance chuckling.

About 50 people show up at 4pm every week. Though well-known musicians like bassist Bob Cunningham have been regular performers, the audience doesn’t come to meet the stars. “People come in for one reason, and that’s to listen to the music,” Drears says. “Some people find this to be a religious experience. Some people come here right after church, for communion – but it’s about the music.”

What Eliot calls “Studio 3F” has all the inclusivity of a house of worship, but with the secret air of a speakeasy. Saxophonist Gerald Hayes, who has played here regularly, calls Parlor Entertainment one-of-a-kind. “I like it because it’s cozy,” he says. “It’s personal. And it’s different. I’m just playing with two pieces, maybe three pieces, but it’s not a full band. I’m raw.”

Eliot grew up in a house with two pianos and began singing in church. Her family moved to New York in 1962, where she raised her five sons on music. “Her mother was her first teacher, just like she was my first teacher,” says Drears. Always active in the arts, Eliot appeared in the original production of Charles Gordone’s “No Place to Be Somebody”, the first African-American play to win a Pulitzer Prize. She acted in Sydney Lumet’s “Serpico” (playing a rape victim) and in a Broadway production of “The Member of the Wedding”. She wrote her own play, “Branches from the Same Tree,” in 1980, and won an AUDELCO award in 2003. She’s also taught theatre and music to children.

She started the parlor sessions as a way to cope with the loss of her son Phillip, an actor who died 17 years ago, at 32, of a kidney infection. The first intermittent performances took place at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, but soon musicians from Eliot’s circle of friends began playing regularly on Edgecombe Street. Drears remembers that “in the early days, it used to be maybe five people. Some days we would go the laundry room and say ‘Come upstairs, we’re doing a show.’”

As the word spread, mother and son had to set out more folding chairs each week. “We haven’t missed a single Sunday in all these years. We’re here rain, snow, blizzards…” Drears says.

Eliot pays the musicians out of pocket and with help from friends and a donation drum. “I don’t want to be funded, so nobody can tell me how to do it,” she says, adding that she has “lots of loans.”

“It’s kind of on a shoestring budget,” Drears says.

Three years ago, Eliot’s son Michael, a rock and R&B musician, died in his late 40s after an illness of several years. “It’s hard,” Drears says, “but God keeps us going. One of the things that makes this so great is the people that come through. They’re here to hear the music and they may be transformed.”

Regular visitor Bessie Mullings used to sing with Eliot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion; she comes to the parlor after church each Sunday. “After the second son died, she took it pretty rough,” she says of her friend. “But she still got to hold on to the piano. You can’t tell people how to heal. She’s been built up now, she’s coming back.”

Parlor Entertainment has become “the essence of my life,” says Eliot. “Everything kind of jumps off of this, and that really speaks to the universal language of music. It nourishes the soul.” At one recent performance, she told an audience that on Sunday nights, she’s “so happy that I can’t go to sleep.”

“People power” keeps the piano tuned and the punch flowing, says Eliot. “So much love and goodwill comes through these doors every Sunday. Folks have taken what is a very sad story and they make something beautiful of it.”

Originally published in The Uptowner, October 27, 2009.